A/N: It looks like there will be one more chapter before we reach the end. :3 If you have any questions or want writing updates, please feel free to follow me on my tumblr! (emilianadarling dot tumblr dot com)
The strength he used to haul Bilbo down was too much, too abrupt, cutting off Bilbo's words with the force of it even before Thorin's mouth crashed against his. It made Bilbo stagger as he was yanked down, the hard grip of Thorin's hand in his hair giving him no choice but to land with all his weight against Thorin's chest. Their teeth clacked, lips mashed together so hard that it was almost painful. Thorin distantly felt as much as heard the muffled noise of surprise Bilbo made against his mouth.
This is right, Thorin thought. Around him, the rest of the world felt out of focus. Out of reach. This is mine.
Everything had narrowed down to this – to what it felt like to have Bilbo so close to him. The weight of his body, the press of his mouth. It felt different than the other half-remembered kisses he had dreamed; sharper, somehow. More real.
There was movement between them, and slowly – very slowly – and after a moment Thorin realized that Bilbo's hands were scrabbling at his chest. Trying to push himself up – to push himself away? Thorin dimly heard himself let out a low growl of displeasure. Without thinking he tightened his fingers in Bilbo's curls and grabbed onto his shoulder with his other hand, holding him in place. It was hard, though. As though Thorin was weaker than he should be.
The sound of their breathing was too loud. Thorin could not tell if Bilbo's lips were soft, if his skin was warm, what it felt like to kiss someone whose face was so smooth. All of that seemed far away and indistinct, as though it was happening to someone else. As though he was looking at himself though a thick fog. He could feel his heartbeat pounding in his ears, and Thorin suddenly became aware of the fact that Bilbo's body was rigid and tense on top of him. That Bilbo's hand was spasming gracelessly against his shoulder before finally falling still, limp and defeated and overpowered.
Thorin felt the bottom fall out of his stomach.
His eyes flew open. With jolting, clumsy movements, he released his hold on Bilbo's shoulder and hair at the same moment that he kicked out with his legs, trying to frantically push himself away.
The results were immediate and disastrous. Their mouths were wrenched apart with a soft wet noise that made Thorin's stomach churn, and for a split second he was able to see look of petrified shock on Bilbo's face before he shoved himself away with such force that he very nearly upset the balance of the rickety cot and sent himself tumbling to the floor. It made Bilbo stumble back as well, his feet back under him again. His eyes were wide and he was breathing hard, his hair even messier than it had been when Thorin first opened his eyes.
They stared at each other for a long while, neither of them speaking. The sudden lack of sound was practically a physical presence between them.
Without saying a word, Thorin pushed himself up with his arms and looked at Bilbo for a long while. He dragged his eyes over Bilbo's tattered coat, over what looked like cobwebs in his hair. There was a cut on his cheek that Thorin hadn't noticed before, a smear of blood under his eye. The air around Thorin was pulsing, beating, and for a second he wondered if he was seeing his own heartbeat. He shook his head.
"Master Baggins," Thorin said slowly after a long pause, his mouth moving around the words slowly, as though he had never spoken them before. His tongue felt thick and strange in his mouth. "I did not mean… I did not intend…"
He licked his lips, trying to blink the fog out of his eyes. He felt as though he should know what to say, but the words were gone as though they had never existed. Out of the corner of his eyes, Thorin noticed that the walls were starting to melt; thick rock sloughing off puddling down on the ground like water. He gave his head a firm shake.
When he looked up again and caught Bilbo's eyes, Thorin was baffled to see that Bilbo's whole expression had closed off. He looked very much like he had that day on the Carrock before their embrace; his mouth a straight line and his eyes cast down, something almost hurt in the lines of his face. Hurt made sense, though, because nothing about this was acceptable. Nothing about this was right.
Thorin knew he should feel humiliated, horrified – knew he would feel those things, eventually. They were just out of reach for now, sunbeams in the dust that he could not catch.
At the moment, however, he was still somewhat uncertain whether or not he was even properly awake. He half-expected the fever-dream to spit him back out into the loneliness of his empty cell at any moment because this could not be happening. Because none of this made any sense.
"… are you dead?" Thorin asked, the words slipping out before he could stop himself, and if Bilbo's expression had been closed-off before now his features were slack with bewilderment, with fear. "I don't… how did you—?"
Before Thorin could finish the sentence, however, a wave of nausea hit him with such strength and immediacy that it left him doubled over. He was aware of the pain in his shoulder again, the wound a throbbing burn that left him shaking. The pain made the nausea worse, and Thorin groaned as he desperately tried to stop himself from being sick.
All at once Bilbo was right next to him, appearing without sound or movement as though he had blinked into existence there. He rested one hand on Thorin's back and grabbed one of Thorin's hands with the other. Their fingers squeezed together.
"Thorin?" said Bilbo, a panicky note in his voice. "Thorin, you're scaring me. What's wrong?"
"… venom," Thorin choked out from between clenched teeth, unable to stop himself from groaning when another wave of nausea twisted in his stomach. Bile tried to crawl its way up his throat, but he forced it back down. "Spider venom. Bit me on the shoulder when we were attacked." His stomach roiled, almost making him gag. "It makes me sick. Makes me… see things."
For a moment, he felt Bilbo's hand on his back fall still – but barely a moment had passed before it was moving again, rubbing comforting circles into the fabric of his tunic.
For such a small creature, Bilbo's hands were firm and steady. They kept Thorin grounded, kept him there as the nausea slowly began to ebb away. Its absence left him feeling cold and sweaty and empty, shaking so hard he felt his teeth chattering. He felt a gentle pressure as Bilbo guided him back into a lying position, his hands unwaveringly strong and sure as they eased him down.
There was the touch of hands on his chest, a tugging at the fabric of his tunic as though to expose his wound to the air. Thorin tried to protest but all that came out was a low, pathetic noise that was slurred and incomprehensible even to his own ears. When he reached up to push Bilbo's hands away, however, he was jolted into awareness by the sensation of Bilbo actually slapping his hand in chastisement like a mother keeping a child's hand out of the honeypot. He opened his eyes, blinking at Bilbo in amazement.
"Stop that," Bilbo snapped. His voice was firm and no-nonsense, all of his attention focused on uncovering Thorin's wound. "I need to actually see it, Thorin, or I won't be able to describe it to Oin."
His words were enough of a shock that when Bilbo moved to uncover his shoulder a second time, Thorin did not resist. It took some effort to peel the crusted fabric away from his skin, but the sting of it barely registered in Thorin's mind. Once the wound was fully exposed, Bilbo wrinkled his nose but did not turn away.
"That… that is fairly distinctive," said Bilbo, more to himself than anything. He let out a little breath of air, gently lowering the fabric back down to cover the wound again. "I should be able to describe that easily enough, I think."
"Oin is alive?" Thorin finally managed to ask, his voice sounding small and brittle to his own ears. Bilbo's head jerked up in surprise.
"Yes," said Bilbo, and there was so much sympathy in his face that Thorin could barely hold his gaze. "Yes, they're all alive. I'm sorry, I didn't… I thought you knew." His eyebrows knitted together gently, his filthy curls so long they were practically in his eyes. "I thought the elves would've told you. The dwarves were only captured a day after you went missing."
That… that was important information, Thorin knew. The uncertainty that had weighed on him for so long was beginning to lighten; the grief that had torn at his mind and driven him half-mad silenced all at once. A distant part of his mind knew that this was cause for celebration, for joy, for anger at the cruelty of his captors.
But the pain in his shoulder was mild, now. Mild enough that he could unclench his jaw and relax his muscles without being overwhelmed by agony. His eyelids were so heavy.
"Oh," mumbled Thorin, and the exclamation was almost inaudible. His body felt wrung-out, drained. It was becoming difficult to focus on anything, as though his thoughts were so slippery he could not hold on to them.
Something was still troubling him, though. It niggled at the back of his mind even as his breathing slowed, even as sleep nudged at the corners of his mind.
"How did you get in here?" Thorin asked, peering up at Bilbo with half-open eyes. "How did you find this place?"
"That's not important now," Bilbo replied, and if the words came out a little too quickly Thorin barely noticed. "Now it's time to sleep."
"If I promise to tell you later, will you do as I say?" Bilbo asked. Thorin had to run his mind over the words a few times before he was able to grasp their meaning, but once he understood he gave a single sleepy nod.
"All right," said Thorin. His eyes fluttered shut and he slumped back onto the cot, exhausted and used-up and barely able to get the words out. "All right."
Eyes closed and already mostly asleep, Thorin almost thought that he could feel fingertips brushing along the side of his face.
"I'll be back soon," came Bilbo's voice, soft and gentle. He sounded very far away. "Sleep now."
And then the fingers were gone, Bilbo's words echoing through over him as he slipped back into the darkness.
The next few times Thorin woke, he was barely conscious enough to understand what was going on.
He remembered bits and pieces, later. He remembered a cold balm being rubbed into the wound in his shoulder by steady hands, the bitter herbs Bilbo made him chew until the juices coated his mouth. He remembered what it felt like to have a cup of water brought up to his mouth by hands that were not his, how the wound in his shoulder throbbed and ached as the venom was slowly leached out.
The first time Bilbo brought him proper food – venison stew and roasted root vegetables, for the woodland elves were never ones to deny themselves the pleasure of fresh meat – Thorin fully expected his stomach to roil, for even the smell to be too much for him. But the nausea never came; instead, all he felt was ravenous. He ate everything Bilbo brought him after that; crusty brown bread with nuts and fruit baked right in, eggs cooked with herbs and butter, even a cup of milk that Thorin could quite envision Bilbo actually smuggling in. He ate every bite until he couldn't eat anymore, until he was full for the first time months.
Sometimes Bilbo ate too, which was good. It made something inside of Thorin feel warm and pleased to see Bilbo eat, even when the world was so foggy he could barely think.
Most of the time, Bilbo talked. It passed the time, and as long as he remained conscious of the guard rotation there was no danger in it: Thorin's cell was so far away from the rest of the dungeons that there was no chance anyone would hear him.
"That was one of the reasons it took me so long to get to you," said Bilbo at one point, nodding at Thorin seriously over a bowl of leek and potato stew. "Finding a way to sneak into the palace took less than a week, but stealing a key to your cell and memorizing the guard schedule took longer."
Bilbo talked about spiderwebs and swords, about freeing the dwarves from the sticky snare of the webs just long enough to see them be captured again. He talked about hiding out in the elven city that surrounded the palace for a few days, staying out of sight and stealing food where he could. At Thorin's prompting, he spoke at length about their companions and the conditions of their imprisonment.
"They're much better off than you are, actually," Bilbo told him as he changed the ointment and dressing on his wound. Thorin believed it to be perhaps the fourth time he had done so; it was difficult to keep track. But every time Bilbo cleaned and re-dressed the wound, Thorin's head grew clearer. He still was not himself, but the ability to string words together into reasonably clear questions and answers was a welcome change.
There was a wry smile on Bilbo's lips. "Their cells are nicer. No one was hurt badly in the fight with the spiders, but those who did suffer injuries had them attended to almost as soon as they were captured." Bilbo hesitated, glancing up and meeting Thorin's eyes briefly. "I cannot believe your wound was allowed to fester for so long. How could Thranduil not know of it?"
Absently, Thorin shook his head. He was able to sit up now, back propped up against the wall and legs dangling over the edge of the cot while Bilbo knelt on the straw mattress next to him. It had not been designed with people of their size in mind, and there was more than enough room for both of them to sit side-by-side.
"Mmm," said Thorin, giving his head a little shake. "No, Thranduil knew." The fact that his words were not slurred felt like a considerable achievement. He gestured vaguely at his shoulder. "This was… part of my punishment."
Bilbo's hands, which had been deftly wrapped white linen around his shoulder, stilled abruptly. Thorin blinked sleepily, turning his head to see what was the matter – but the look on Bilbo's face made him hold his tongue. There was a rigidity in his expression that Thorin had not seen there often. His lips were pressed tightly together, and his eyes were fixed on the wound with an intensity that Thorin did not fully understand.
A few moments passed. Bilbo opened his mouth as if to say something before closing it again, a look of solemn consideration on his face. After a moment's pause his hands began to work again, their movements brisker than before.
"If these are the only elves you knew when you were growing up," said Bilbo as he finished dressing the wound, voice carefully even and eyes still fixed on the work in front of him, "then I think I might understand your aversion to them a bit better."
He tied off the bandage with an efficient knot, then pulled Thorin's dark blue tunic into place so that the guards would not notice anything out of the ordinary when they brought him his evening meal in a few hours. "Now get some rest. I have to do some sneaking around to figure out how best to escape this blasted place."
That was how Bilbo's visits always went: he would appear without a sound, then play nursemaid for an hour or two before running off as though he had never been there in the first place. Sometimes, when he was gone, Thorin would question whether or not he had ever been there to begin with. His presence felt even less real than the dreams, much of the time. Less plausible, less solid. It was impossible for Thorin to tell how much time passed, moments and memories slipping through his fingers even as he lived through them, and even as he grew stronger the world continued to be polished with a gloss of unreality, of impossibility.
Even as the poison was leached from his wound and the herbs soothed his fever, Thorin still did not feel real. Did not feel like himself.
The day that Thorin finally awoke and did feel like himself again – fully present and unfiltered by illness or delusion, his fever broken and strong enough to walk, to run, to fight – he almost wished he could have lingered in the dream.
When Thorin finally returned to himself, nearly three days had passed since Bilbo Baggins had first found him. He opened his eyes, blinked up at the rough-hewn ceiling – and felt the memory of that kiss hit him square in the chest as though he was being physically struck by it. As though he was remembering a nightmare.
But the dreams were over now, and this was the reality he had to live in.
I laid hands on him, Thorin thought, remembering the violence – the ruthlessness – of what he did. Twisting his filthy hands into Bilbo's hair and yanking him down so hard it must have been painful; using his greater size and strength to physically make Bilbo stay in place when he tried to pull away. Before, the memory had been dream-like, unreal.
Remembering it now, unfiltered by the delirium or exhaustion, made Thorin feel physically ill.
I forced that on him.
The shame that coiled in his stomach was so visceral, so endless, that he could barely comprehend it. It burned like molten metal, hot and pure and destroying everything in its wake. It left him staring at the ceiling, eyes wide open and so horrified at himself that he could not have spoken even had he tried.
Thorin had felt shame like this when he had been captured by Thranduil; when he believed his kin and companions dead, that he had been responsible for the ruination of their quest. But there had been grief, then, too. A sorrow that had obfuscated the burn of it, the helplessness of his failure. Now it was all-consuming and raw, filling him up to the brim and leaving him with a sinking feeling in his chest.
There had been no understanding between them; Thorin had never even expressed his interest, a thousand little things always seeming more important, always getting in the way. But he had kissed Bilbo anyways. And worse than that – so much worse – was the fact that when Bilbo had objected, when he had tried to pull away, Thorin had refused to let him.
There were no words in the common tongue for the depth of his transgression, but the words for it in Khuzdul ran through his head over and over, wearing away at his mind like rushing water over a stone.
If they were in Erebor as it was, or Ered Luin, or the Iron Hills, or anywhere Dwarvish law held any sway, he could be tried for such an action if Bilbo wanted. Regardless of his birth or station, king or no. It was unforgivable.
And the worst part – the very worst part – was that Bilbo seemed to have forgiven him anyways. He had not shouted or scolded him or tried to run, had not left Thorin to rot half-mad down here in solitude as would have been his due. Instead, Bilbo had stayed. Had put himself in unspeakable danger, wandering around the palace for days where anyone could have seen him, in order to nurse Thorin back to health. Bilbo had chosen to clean his wounds and bring him food and brush the tangles from Thorin's hair with his fingers. He had given Thorin everything when he deserved nothing.
He is more selfless than I will ever be, Thorin thought distantly. His insides felt hollow. At long last his mind was crystal clear, unclouded by fever or exhaustion, and the only thing in the world he could think about was so devastating that there was a physical ache in his chest. Thorin sat up slowly, turning and letting his feet hang over the edge of the cot. He stared at the wall across from him without really seeing it.
Before, there had been a history of bad blood between them. There had been Thorin's own foul temperament to contend with; his status as a king in exile, his inability to offer the proper tokens and trinkets to make up for past behaviour.
All of that seemed very small, now. Laughable.
There had been one chance – one chance – to get it right. To reclaim his kingdom and keep Bilbo safe, to make everything up to him once and for all. For so long, Thorin had daydreamed about the things he would offer Bilbo after all this was over; the ways he could win Bilbo's affection once and for all. He would have given him a smoking pipe with rubies in the handle, lavish clothes stitched with gold thread to make up for the way Bilbo own Shire clothing had been ruined throughout their acquaintance. He had imagined himself giving Bilbo beads small enough to suit his short hair, rings for his slender fingers. All of them inscribed with Khuzdul that would show Thorin's claim; writing that Bilbo would be able to read and love and cherish.
He had imagined offering himself, heart no longer weighed down with his peoples' sorrow, attentive and devoted and willing to do anything to make this work.
And in a single action – a single instant – Thorin had ruined all of that forever.
For a long while, Thorin sat and stared at the wall and let his mind run over every memory he could dredge up from the last few days. Himself, helpless and hapless; the patience that Bilbo had shown him. The humiliation burned almost as brightly as his anger and shame, settling hard in his chest as he realized what must be done.
The quest was all he had left. To rebuild the home of his forefathers or die trying, to make his mark or else make one last sacrifice for the line of Durin. The best thing he could do for Bilbo now was to get him out alive, to send him home to the Shire with a caravan's worth of gold to live off for the rest of his days.
The halfling had done so much for him, and so far he had been rewarded only with cruelty. There was no reason he should be required to withstand any more unpleasantness.
Stone-faced and solemn, Thorin slowly got to his feet. He noticed in a vague sort of way that there was no accompanying headrush when he stood, no lingering unsteadiness in his legs. He walked slowly over to the bowl and water pitcher, washing himself as best he could and aware for the first time just how vile he must look, of how he awful must smell. It was but one more humiliation to add to the growing collection. He removed his tunic and rinsed some of the sweat from his torso, then splashed a handful of water on his face. He cleaned his teeth with one of the sprigs of silversage Bilbo had brought him, then combed his fingers through his hair to work out the last few snarls.
At some point during his delirium, he had discarded all of his heavy outer layers until he was left wearing only his tunic and trousers. It did not take long to track down every coat and belt and leather strap, wrapping himself up in layers of propriety and stateliness until he was no longer a half-mad prisoner who had been left to suffer and die in this cursed place. Until he was Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain again.
He was just adjusting the last bracer when he heard the quiet clank of a key turning in the lock, and Thorin knew who it was before he even turned around. There had been no footsteps coming down the hall to warn him, and despite the supposed light-footedness of elves his guards never bothered to conceal their movements.
"Oh!" he heard Bilbo exclaim softly. Thorin took a deep breath, then turned around to face him.
It was obvious that Bilbo had stilled mid-step, a bundle of what was doubtless fresh food clutched tight to his chest with one hand. His other hand was tucked into his waistcoat pocket, only his ring and pinky fingers visible. Bilbo's eyebrows were drawn up in an expression of quiet surprise. He looked very much caught off guard.
"Thorin," said Bilbo quietly, almost as though he had been expecting someone else. "You're awake." His eyes quickly darted from Thorin's washed face to his shod feet. "You look well."
There was something hesitant in his demeanour, an uncertainty in his eyes, and it evoked the memory of that kiss so strongly that Thorin could practically feel Bilbo's weight on top of him, the way his hands had scrabbled at Thorin's chest.
Something in Thorin's heart grew cold. He did not deserve any of this; the care, the kindness, the tentative camaraderie they had built so carefully throughout the journey. He nodded gruffly.
"I am in your debt, Master Baggins," Thorin declared, the words coming out quiet and clipped, and there was no way to convey just how much he meant it. Across the cell, Bilbo was staring at him with an expression that he could not decipher. Thorin swallowed, averting his eyes and pretending to adjust his bracers again. He flexed his fingers and stared determinedly at how the action made the leather shift. "How goes the plan of escape?"
It was a moment before Bilbo spoke, and when he did something about his voice sounded off-balance. Strange. "It's ready, for the most part. The cellar guards have been making merry every night for the past week, and a new shipment of barrels came in this morning." Bilbo hesitated. "We were mostly waiting for you to recover."
"And now I am recovered," said Thorin simply. He raised his head and his eyes locked with Bilbo's. Thorin held his gaze, willing his expression to become hard and stony so that it could not betray any of the hollowness churning in his stomach. "We leave tonight."
There was another long pause. Something about Bilbo's expression was weary, the the lines of his face far too pronounced. There was a slump to his shoulders that made Thorin's heart ache, but this was for Bilbo's own good. The halfling was kind to a fault, sacrificing his own safety and sanity for someone who had done nothing but harm him. And now that Thorin was of sound mind he could not in good conscience continue to take advantage of that.
Eventually, he saw something in Bilbo's posture deflate. "As you like," he said, placing his bundle on the floor. "I'll… I'll go prepare for that, shall I?" He moved to leave, his feet not making a sound on the floor and not looking back when he spoke again. "I'll be back before nightfall."
The moment Bilbo turned the corner, Thorin felt his shoulders slump as he let out a great breath of air. He stared at the place where Bilbo had just been standing for far longer than he would have liked to admit.
In the end, Bilbo's plan with the barrels proved to be startlingly effective.
Perhaps it was because they had attracted so much ill luck over the course of their journey – the clash with Azog, the fall into the goblin tunnels, capture at the hands of the Mirkwood elves – but when Bilbo had finally arrived the night before to free him from his cell, Thorin had fully expected that their escape would prove to be perilous at best. There were so many things that could have gone wrong, and it had seemed unthinkable that they would be able to leave without running into some kind of trouble.
Aside from a brief scare with the sleeping guards, however, everything had gone as planned. The rest of their company was rescued from their cells; they reclaimed their weapons and made their way through to the cellar without being noticed. And without alerting even a single guard, Bilbo had managed to get all of them into the barrels – and then get the barrels into the river.
Simply because the plan had been successful, however, did not mean that it was pleasant. The barrels were small and cramped, and each time the rushing water sent them crashing into the shore or another barrel its occupant was thumped around like a practice dummy during weapons training. Some of the barrels had been filled with foul-smelling cargo, as well: raw fish in one instance, a foul-smelling tuber in another. It left the unfortunate dwarves in those particular barrels wrinkling their noses and struggling to keep their stomachs from roiling.
The sun was just starting to rise by the time the trees around them began to thin, a welcome indicator that they were far enough from the Woodland Realm to avoid attracting notice. After weeks of being suffocated smothered by the decaying forest, the fact that they were able to see the sky at all was a cause for celebration. But it was another hour of travel before the water had grown peaceful enough that they were able to struggle to shore.
Soaking wet and bruised and free, finally free, the company dragged themselves from the water just as the red-gold sun began to peek over the treetops. Thorin was one of the first to come ashore, as soaking wet as if he had swam the river instead of ridden on it. He heaved himself up onto the rocky earth and rolled onto his back almost at once, swallowing down huge gulps of breath and taking a moment for the shaking in his limbs to subside. As much as he had claimed to be fully recovered from his illness, his body was keenly aware of the toll it had taken.
Around him, the dwarves that had already made it to shore – he could see Dwalin, Bifur, and Dori for sure – were struggling to their feet and wading back into the lake to help drag the rest of their party to shore. All of them were weighed down by heavy armour and weapons. He was vaguely aware of shouts of relief and delight and exhaustion.
As he began to push himself off the ground to go assist in bringing everyone to shore, however, Thorin noticed that a few miles away, the river seemed to open up into a great body of water. He felt his already-unsteady breath hitch in his throat.
The Long Lake, Thorin realized, practically unable to believe his eyes. And past the Long Lake lay the ruins of Dale, and past that–
Erebor. Like a land from a dream. For years, Thorin had dwelled for so long on his memories of Erebor - on the idea of Erebor, on everything it meant for him and his people – that it had practically ceased to be a real place in his mind. All this way, all this time. It was almost inconceivable that it could possibly be so close.
We are truly here.
With a shake of his head that sent water flying from his dripping hair, Thorin forced himself to set aside all thoughts of Erebor for the moment. He had been absent from his companions for so long, and they deserved his attention and assistance more than anything else right now. He struggled to pull himself into a standing position, ignoring the trembling in his limbs and scanning around to see what help was required.
After a moment's headcount, Thorin allowed himself a sigh of relief that he did not even realize he had been holding back. Some of them were in the water and some of them were on the shore, but miraculously every single member of the company was accounted for.
A flash a movement caught his eye, and when he saw the maroon coat and sopping wet curls he moved without thinking. Thorin waded back into the water until it came up to his chest, only stopping when the halfling was within his reach. Bilbo had apparently abandoned his barrel and was making an effort to paddle towards the shore, but his progress was slow and his motions had grown uncoordinated. He looked as though it was taking considerable effort to keep himself afloat for much longer.
Without a word, Thorin leaned down and wrapped an arm around Bilbo's waist. He gave a great haul until Bilbo's head was well above the water, then began to drag him back to shore. He half-expected that Bilbo would try to wrench himself away as soon as he had his feet back under him, but he did not: instead, he fisted his hands in the fur of Thorin's sodden cloak and allowed himself to be pulled along.
Even soaking wet, Bilbo weighed so little that it was easy to scoop him up half off his feet. As soon as they were back on dry land, Thorin spied a soft-looking patch of grass where he deposited his armful of halfling as gently as he could. Spluttering and shivering, Bilbo looked up at him with grateful eyes. The pale points of his ears were peeking through his wet hair.
"Thank you," said Bilbo weakly. "I –"
Before he could finish, Thorin spun around and marched back to the water's edge. He tried to ignore the heat in his face and the twisting in his stomach, refusing to let himself turn back. He helped those still in need of assistance with a single-minded focus, concentrating resolutely as he guided Gloin to shore, as he and Dwalin pulled Bombur from the water.
Thorin was so focused on keeping his eyes firmly on his task (don't turn around don't look at him, don't you dare, have you not done enough already?) that he did not notice Fili and Kili until they were crashing into him, seizing him in an embrace that nearly swept him off his feet. They clutched at him with such strength that it was difficult to breathe, but he could not bring himself to care. All he could do was hold them close, the three of them an undignified cluster of soaking hair and clothes. Thorin closed his eyes and tried to ignore the tightness in his throat.
"Uncle," he heard one of them mumble against his chest, and it struck him for the first time that they, too, had been uncertain whether a member of their family was living or dead during their capture. For a moment, it felt as though they were thirty years old again, come to hide behind his cloak after some prank or folly gone awry. They stood in a tangle of limbs for a long while, and Thorin tried to forget what it had been like to think them dead; what it had been like to think himself responsible.
This is enough, Thorin told himself, pushing away the sadness that threatened at the corners of his mind. This should be enough for anyone.
They made camp that morning tucked into the woods alongside the river on the off chance they had been followed, some of them barely managing to make it to the clearing before collapsing on the ground in exhaustion. Those that were able to stay awake stood guard or scavenged for food or hung sodden cloaks and coats and tunics out to dry. There were still another few weeks before Durin's Day would be upon them; there was enough time to recover before pressing forward.
After Thorin fell into a sleep so dreamless and deep it felt as though he had barely closed his eyes before they were open again, he took a little time to tend to his basic needs. He returned to the river to properly bathe away the lingering filth of his imprisonment, washing away the last of the sweat and grime that still clung to his skin. While he wished he could was the tunic and trousers as well, he had no spare ones to wear in the meantime. It would be good to resupply soon; he wondered idly if there were any villages of men between them in the mountain.
Once Thorin was as clean as he could be without hot water or soap, he returned to camp. They are squirrel stew that afternoon, all of them clustered around the stolen Elvish stew pot as his companions filled him in on everything he had missed since his capture. He responded in kind only when pressed, but was careful to leave out the most humiliating elements of the story: being hand-fed by an elf, the full extent of his delirium, the kiss the kiss the kiss.
Thorin kept himself determinedly busy all that day, managing to find something to occupy himself with even in the quietest of moments. He scouted the area with Dwalin and had a lengthy conversation about the logistics of the rest of their journey with Balin, though he pretended not to notice the obvious concern and relief in Balin's eyes as they spoke. He sat with his nephews and almost smiled at their exhausted but eager recollections of being captured by the spiders; he talked with Nori about the possibility of acquiring new clothes from any towns they might pass by; he half-listened as Oin told the younger dwarves a story about the different guilds in Erebor and how they had flourished before the dragon came.
There was only one of them he purposefully avoided; one whose eyes he could not meet.
Twice that day, Bilbo approached him – out of kindness, Thorin thought, misplaced though it was – and each time Thorin kept his eyes fixed on something beyond the halfling's head, grunting non-committedly until Bilbo eventually closed up and chose to turn and leave.
It wasn't polite, and it certainly wasn't kind. But if they spoke – if the two of them actually sat down and spoke – Thorin knew he would be as good as lost. He would beg and plead, shameless and mortifying, for forgiveness; would make a scene of himself when it was already too late, when he had already done so much harm. And because of who he was, Bilbo would forgive him even though he deserved so much better; even though forgiveness was the last thing Thorin deserved.
Eventually, Bilbo gave up trying to talk to him and instead went to sort through the waterlogged bags of supplies they had managed to take with them when they fled Mirkwood. No matter how hard he tried, however, Thorin could not stop himself from stealing the briefest of glances at him from across the camp when he was sure Bilbo wasn't looking. Guiltily, he caught fleeting images of Bilbo stacking up some kind of dampened flatbread, leaning back against a tree with his eyes closed, repairing his torn coat with a stolen needle and thread. He looked… tired. Tense.
By nightfall, Bilbo had been joined by Bofur. They sat together a little ways away from the fire that Gloin had made, both of them talking in hushed voices. There was a worried expression on Bofur's face that did not suit him. The intimacy of it made something clench painfully in Thorin's chest, made him press the bluntness of his nails into the palm of his hand as a distraction. He had no right to feel this way anymore, if the right had ever been his in the first place. But the knowledge that his mood was unwarranted only left him more disconsolate, left him restless and sullen and so angry with himself that it made it hard to think of anything else.
Thorin slept badly that night, even with Fili and Kili sprawled out on either side of him. The only way he eventually managed to drift off was by letting his mind wander to the halls of Erebor-that-was; the great torch-lit walkways and the blazing glow of the forges, the lustre and comforts of the inner sanctum that he and his family had called their home for so long. The treasury; its endless halls teeming with gems of every colour and gold wrought into every shape imaginable. And above it all, the Arkenstone; the fixed point around which all of Erebor moved and breathed and thrived, constant and forever and so divine in its beauty.
His last thought before he drifted off was that treasure could not be betrayed, nor could it betray you. It was stronger, that way, than treasures of the heart.
When Thorin awoke the next morning, there was an uneasiness in his chest that he could not identify. His fingers itched with it as the company ate breakfast, as they talked about whether to go around the Long Lake or attempt to cross it. He had chosen to sit and rest his back against a tree on the perimeter of their camp, staring out into nothing in particular as he turned one of his heavy rings over and over in his hands. The silver felt cool and pleasant against his fingers.
And no matter how hard he tried to remain in the present, Thorin's mind kept wandering. His thoughts strayed far beyond the lake, beyond the rocky planes and the desolated city that adorned them. To the mountain – his mountain. His kingdom, soon enough. To the endless wealth that spilled through the halls of the treasury like a river of gold.
A quiet voice in the back of his mind wondered whether in all the treasure in all the kingdom there could be something grand enough – unique enough – to force someone to forgive something unforgivable.
Thorin was still consumed by thoughts of mithril and diamonds and oceans of wealth when a small, pointed cough jolted him out of his trance. He glanced up – and every thought of treasure fled Thorin's mind as though it had never been there at all when he saw Bilbo Baggins standing over him.
The haze lifted from Thorin's mind as he blinked up at Bilbo in surprise, staring at him for longer than was probably appropriate without speaking. He noticed the furrow in Bilbo's eyebrows, the tightness in his mouth, and Thorin found himself at a loss for what to say for an entirely different reason than he had expected.
Because Bilbo did not look upset, or hurt, or anything Thorin might have anticipated based on his actions thus far.
Instead, Bilbo looked angry.
"I need to talk with you," Bilbo snapped, the words harsh and clipped on the mid-morning air. Everything about him was rigid, on edge. He breathed in sharply through his nose, then let it all out all at once in a single irritated huff. "Now."